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A brief history of Sicily by Paolo Mazzesi

The history of Sicily begins with the history of Europe, during the upper Paleolithic (20,000 – 10,000 bC): it was populated by peoples of the modern human type. Settlements and new civilizations followed in waves, then followed by new ones over and over: the Phoenician, the Greeks, the Arabs (the Moors)…..

The most ancient Sicilian culture we know is dated around 10,000 bC (as established from rock carvings at Mount Pellegrino), followed by others until in the Eneolithic (Copper age, 3,500-3,000 bC) the island began to be subjected to ever increasing influences by oriental and Mediterranean civilizations.

Sicily used to have a different name before the current one (we would call it Sicania): it originated from the “Sicani” people: anthropologists tell us that the “Sicani” had nothing in common with the “Siculi”, who came later. The former originated from Libya, and geologists admit they could have come to the western part of the island when a strip of land emerged during glacial eras used to connect Africa to Sicily, therefore these people where of Camitic origin. About 1,000 bC these people were exterminated by the Carthaginese.

During the same period, either before of after the disappearance of the “Sicani”, on the eastern part of the island began to land the “Siculi”, a Pelasgic tribe, of hindo-european origin, therefore Semitic. Before the arrival of further migrational waves of Phoenicians first, then Greeks, local populations had already melted and the only name left was “Siculi” (hence “Sicily”).

Between the end of the 9th century bC and the beginning of the 8th century bC, when major political readjustments in both the Middle East and the rising Hellades (Greece) occurred, the exploration of the Sicilian island resumed: first with just some scouting, then (tradition places it around 734 bC) the Corinthians founded the city of Siracusa and right after that (in 728 bC) the Megarese founded the city of Megara Iblea. In 688 the Rhodese (from the island of Rhodes) and Cretese (from the island of Crete) founded Gela (today a major oil refinery center, editor’s note), while the Calcidaeses founded Messina, Reggio, Nasso, Taormina (on the island), Lentini, Catania. In 580 bC the people of Gela founded Agrigento and Selinunte. Over a century span, the Greeks completely changed Sicily’s face: politically, socially and culturally.

Phoenicians landed there too, but only to establish trading bases.

The relationship between the occupiers and the local populations were fairly good, which favored the process of “hellenization” (i.e. absorption of the Greek culture) of the territory, also because the new culture and the associated political system were very much appreciated, since 1) they provided benefits for everybody and 2) they came from millenarian oriental civilizations, and brought new technologies which began to change the island outlook.

Only the Siculi of Siracusa rebelled against the Greek hegemony, and it was this city, ever more powerful, which extended its supremacy over the island, and, keeping Carthago at bay, favored the economical, cultural and political evolution of the island, which lasted over 4 centuries. This period’s wonders, can be admired at the Archaelogical Museum of Siracusa, amongst the richest in the world.

However the Siracusans could not dodge the Roman hegemony, which began in 241 bC. Their domination terminated in 476 aC, when the Romans where not only unable to conquer anything else, but not even to defend themselves.

After the fall of the Roman empire, there was an invasion by Theodoric’s Ostrogots in 493 aC, a very bad period of byzantine domination (535 aC, 827 aC). Then the Arab invasion (probably requested by some locals, to stop the byzantine’s oppression). The Moors landed at Mars-Allah (Allah’s port), today’s Marsala, and beat the Byzantines. In 831 AC they entered Palermo, in 859 aC Enna, in 902 aC Taormina. So inserted in the Islamic area of influence, Sicily experienced a long period of growth, both economical and cultural. This is when things such as the citrus cultivation (still a major economical resource today), water seeking technologies (new for the times) and new agricultural tools were introduced.

With the disintegration of the islamic world, came the fall of the Moors domination in Sicily, rapidly followed by the occupation, not really traumatic, by the Normans in the period 1061-1091 aC: they ruled until 1266 aC with the Svevs. Under the Normans, but mainly under Frederick the 2nd, the island went through another golden period. Palermo was already an important cultural center, but it became even more important, with a variety of interests: literature, philosophy, jurisprudence, science, arts; but it also became the center of the spiritual Italian life in the 13th century aC. The entire island experienced a period of unparalleled prosperity. Amongst so many wonders were: works by the Arab Ibn Edrisi, an astronomer as well as a doctor, who carved on a silver slate the first representation of the Austral world (the southern part of the planet, editor’s note). In this singular map, he represented, for the first time, the Earth sphericity (i.e. the world is not flat and if you run off the edges you fall into hell, as many people believed then …. Editor’s note), even the two poles, and even a note: “in the South the sun rises from North, and instead of the North Star you get 4 stars, known as the “South Cross”.

The end of the Norman hegemony in 1266 aC delivered Sicily in the hands of the “Angioini” (From the the Angio’ family in Naples), whose harsh fiscal implementations made people look back with regret to the Byzantine’s of two centuries before. In 1282 aC these lead to the “Vespri Siciliani”. The House of Aragona intervened, but to no avail, actually they helped the birth of a separatist movement, which, by the way, in 1302 aC gave life to a brief autonomous Kingdom of Sicily (this separatist movement will show up during the entire history of the island, including 1943-1945 with “bandito Giuliano”, editor’s note).

Internal feuds and the obtusity of the governants caused for the island a slow but inexorable economic and social decline. A strong centralized government was re-established in 1392 with the Aragona family, but in 1409 Sicily was incorporated into the Kingdom of Spain, reducing the island to the rank of a colony, i.e. always take and never give. In 1416 raised to power Alfonse (later called “The Magnanimus”), who significantly improved the situation, but he established the capital in Naples: what happened was that for over two centuries Sicily was ruled by a “Viceroy” (governor) who was always a stranger and governed from Naples (quite far away for those times). The local nobility quickly blended with the Spanish court, which impacted the Sicilian society to a large extent, both culturally, in the mentality and even more economically, since to Madrid the island was nothing but a peripheral dominion from which obtain manpower and money for its numerous wars, which the Aragona, draining the state coffers, at the end lost: the last one, the one which erased them from the European scene, was lost against the Austrians (1720-1734). Their sovereign over the island was very short, from 1720 until 1734, when Sicily fell into the hands of the Borbone’s and was attached to the Kingdom of Naples.

The economic improvement brought by the Borbone’s caused also a demographic development: in 1700 the island had about 1 million inhabitants: in 1800 they were about 1.85 million. These were years that saw unique changes, during the Napoleonic period. With the French occupying Naples, The Borbone’s took refuge in Sicily, but the island was governed by the British, who had occupied it (1806-1810). During the following 6 years, the 1302 dream re-emerged: from the aristocracy and from the middle class, but also largely from the populace, a modern state, liberal, English style, was taking shape: it went so far that in 1812 a Constitution similar to the English one, was written, foreseeing a bi-cameral congress. The fall of Napoleon and the Restoration, in 1812, brought back the Borbone’s on the throne and the autonomy of a Constitutional Sicily remained a dream. The Sicilians then tried to constitute at least an autonomous kingdom, but the Borbone’s answered making a big mistake: creating the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Only when the Borbone’s were dethroned they gave the Sicilians their own Constitution, but it was too little too late, both the Borbone’s and the Sicilians lost: the Borbone’s were canceled from the political scene and the Sicilians found themselves involved in a “Risorgimento” (literally “Resurrection”, which includes the three independence wars that brought to the unification of Italy) which had nothing to do with them as they had nothing to do with what was happening in the northern regions, and all became bitterly subjects of a Piedmontese King. But let’s go back to 1821.

The opposition to the Borbonic regime started right after the Restoration in both the regions (namely the two Sicilies, i.e. Sicily and the continental part of the kingdom), creating major problems to Naples with the insurrections of 1821, but the Borbone’s put down the local riots and answered with arms the Palermo’s riots, to which the insurrection extended like a wild fire. The rebels had the strength of the arms, but the political weakness that followed, which did not succeed in either balance the budget, or meet the demands of the farmers, the workers and the middle class. The 1848 revolution and its after-waves right before and after the unification of Italy, again created enormous tensions in the island.

In en edict on May 6th, 1860, Garibald expressed the intention of supporting the island insurrection to achieve the unity of Italy. On June 6th, after landing on the island, he provoked the fall of the Borbone’s ruling, and the Sicilians already believed in a new Constitution (the one written in 1812, of British style) when the same day Cavour sent an envoy (Farina) with the task of: a) prepare the annexation of Sicily to the Kingdom of Piedmont; b) establish the Sabaudian Constitution (the Constitution of the Kindom of Piedmont, Sabaudian meaning “of the House of Savoia”, the ruling family); and c) convoke the new Parliament for the next September. The entire audience froze: rage exploded in the liberal circles. Garibaldi had Farina arrested for conspiracy against the “legitimate Sicilian government”. This is when the harsh conflict between Garibaldi and the Savoia and Cavour, never resolved, began. “I did not envision such an Italy” Garibaldi will later say. The facts will prove him right.

The forced annexation did eventually happen, but the obtuse politics of bureaucratic centralization, the extension to the island of the Sabaudian state organization, integrally applying to Sicily the economic legislature existing in Piedmont, created animosity in all the locals, but in some even open hostility. A people (the Sicilians), who knew absolutely nothing about the other (the Piedmontese), with enormous distances both geographic (for those times) and cultural between them, with two languages totally unknown to the other (even the king spoke only strict Piedmontese dialect) with customs and traditions completely different, refused to accept ambiguous laws and institutions imposed on them without consideration for the local realities. Even Cavour knew nothing about the south: he never was further south than Florence!

Different sections were added to this new "unified Italy". See Map of Unified Italy

The riots that followed were repressed with harsh violence; labeled hoodlums and terrorists, the rebels were put down by the army, and such riots created not only the “Sicilian problem”, but also created in the rest of Italy a distorted information in the public opinion. Useless was the creation, in 1894 of the “Fasci dei lavoratori” (precursor to unions). Crispi (then the Piedmontese PM) answered by blockading the island: his political stand was basically “give up or we will shoot at sight”. Between 1900 and 1914 one million and a half of Sicilians were forced to migrate abroad. It was the first exodus of biblical proportions, but not the last.

Then came the Great War (WWI) and suddenly the central government remembered that also Sicily had men to send to the front. These too paid their tribute of blood and sacrifice and upon their return they were received not better than their colleagues in the North: there was a reason if fascism was created upon the veterans uneasiness. After the war, Sicily was once again shaken by a farmers’ movement to occupy the unused land. Neither the 20 years of the fascist era that followed could solve the “problem”. Very few initiatives and abysmal inertia.

From 1943 and after WWII, on the now liberated (from the nazi-fascists) island re-emerged, as in 1860, a separatist movement, capitalizing on the confusion and the uncertainty that, after September 8th, 1943, split Italy into two factions and led to the civil war.

After the war, the founders of the separatist movement (MIS) were arrested. In 1946 Sicily was accorded an autonomist statute, which did not solve the “problem” either, and did not benefit of the disorderly Italian economic boom of the years 1950’ and 1960’s. As at the beginning of the century the only thing that started moving was a new massive migration towards the north of Italy and abroad, a migration that stopped only in the last 10 years on the 20th century.

With the new generations, a new era is starting: capitalizing on its human and environmental resources and targeting a rich potential market (the low Mediterranean, which will soon have a population comparable to the entire continental market, a humongous market on its door step) Sicily is now looking at a bright future and, hopefully, will close forever the book of her tragic and tormented history.

My latest book on CD is titled Sicily - A Reference for Researchers and is now available. With a file for each town (plus many other files), it relates the history of Sicily as reflected in the photos, records and festivals of its towns. It contains over 2500 text and photo files and can be ordered at CD order.


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